Canine stars of internet videos the world over have another feather in their cap as a scientific study claims they show signs of self-awareness and understanding the consequences of their actions.
The Hungarian study involved 32 pet dogs giving a toy to their human handler. Sometimes the furry friends were grabbing a toy attached to a mat on which they were standing. Sometimes the toy was attached to the ground. Would the dog know the difference? Would they be able to tell if their own body was an obstacle to their objective?
More often than not, they could.
Péter Pongrácz, associate professor at the Department of Ethology, Eötvös Loránd University, and Rita Lenkei, PhD student at the department, found that dogs left the mat more frequently and sooner when the toy was attached to the mat than in control experiments, where it was attached to the ground, and leaving the mat did not impact the dogs' ability to pass the toy to their owners.
The researchers argued that the dogs could recognise their own body was stopping them from giving the toy to their owner. They were able to see the difference between when it was necessary to leave the mat to complete the task and when leaving the mat would not solve the problem.
"This is the first convincing evidence of body awareness through the understanding of the consequence of own actions in a species where previously no higher-order self-representation capacity was found," the researchers said in the paper published in Nature Scientific Reports.
There may be a serious point to all this, though, other than understanding whether our canine friends really are as stupid as they sometimes seem.
In human toddlers the onset of succeeding in the "body as an obstacle" task is in parallel with the success in the well-known mirror mark test, the researchers said. It has been argued that both tests are based on the knowledge of processing and representing the contingent motion relation between the self and the environment.
"Our results with dogs are the first indications that recognizing the body as an obstacle may exist independently from being capable of visual self-recognition," they said.
They went on to argue that the failure of doggie self-awareness on mirror mark tests might be because of "the inappropriate stimuli – their vision." For dogs, smell or sound might be more relevant.
Both human and non-human thinking should be considered as "embodied cognition," which accounts for the physical body that interacts with the environment. ®